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Space Shuttle Endeavour Launches on Penultimate Shuttle Mission

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Readers who were around last term may remember my article about Space Shuttle Discovery’s final flight in February and the two remaining Space Shuttle missions NASA has planned. The first of those two missions began on May 18th, sending the newer Space Shuttle, Endeavour, on its last mission. While the mission, labeled STS-134, was to be the final mission for the Space Shuttle program, the United States Government approved to convert Endeavour’s Launch-on-Need rescue mission into a final regular mission STS-135, which is due to launch in July. STS-134 was scheduled to launch at the end of April with U.S. President Barack Obama in attendance along with Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly’s wife, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously wounded in a shooting in January. The launch was delayed a couple weeks and Giffords was able to attend the successful launch.

Endeavour was authorized for construction in 1987 after its predecessor, Challenger, suffered a devastating accident seconds after launch. On its first missions, it held the Spacelab module, which allowed astronauts to conduct experiments in microgravity. In 2000, it migrated to installing components on the International Space Station such as the Canadarm2, and acted as a sort of space ferry for astronauts to get to and from the Space Station.

For Endeavour’s final mission, it carried eight components, experiments and tools: the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 3 (ELC-3), the Materials on International Space Station Experiment 8 (MISSE-8), the Orion Rel-nav Sensor, a GLACIER Freezer Module, an Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS), Lego kits and STEM Bars. The STEM Bars were brought to support high school students Mikayla and Shannon Diesch, who created the nutrition bars and aim to raise awareness of STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The Lego kits were also brought for a school-focused project, aimed to see how models react in microgravity.

The OBSS is an extension for the Canadarm2 already attached to the Space Station, but Endeavour is leaving an OBSS on the Space Station permanently so that future missions can make use of it. In addition to allowing the Canadarm2 to reach previously unreachable locations on the Space Station, it has a handrail along its side so astronauts can conduct spacewalks with it.

Endeavour brought a GLACIER Freezer Module and is returning two older ones. The GLACIER Modules are used for storing and bringing science samples to the Space Shuttle. It also brought the Orion Rel-nav Sensor to test its performance. The sensor would be used on NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is in development as a small unit for carrying astronauts in the future.

The main component brought was the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is a particle physics detector with a large magnet, designed to investigate antimatter and dark matter. This unit is the final version of the one placed before it, and is designed by over 500 scientists from 16 countries and 56 institutions. Although controversial for its $1.5 billion price tag, it could prove incredibly useful in understanding the universe and unexplored particles.

Other parts brought on Endeavour include the MISSE-8, which is part of a series of experiments on the ISS to measure the effects on materials done by long-term exposure to space. MISSE-7 was conducted over the last two years and was returned with Endeavour. Another part, ELC-3, brings large and heavy Orbital Replacement Units for other spacecraft. This includes a High Pressure Gas Tank, Ammonia Tank Assembly and Dextre, a Canadian contribution which acts as a hand to the Canadarm.

When Endeavour returns, it will be decommissioned and placed in the California Science Center. The Canadarm aboard the shuttle will be removed and sent to a currently undetermined museum in Canada. The final Space Shuttle launch will take place on July 8th, unless weather or technical delays push it back further. This is your last chance to see a NASA Space Shuttle launch, so make sure to watch it if you can or read up on it. The Space Shuttle program will undoubtedly be read about in history books centuries from now.

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